It's totally normal to envy up-and-coming Latin alternative pop diva Sacha Nairobi. Her vibrant voice explodes melodically from her chest when she sings her catchy, ironic lyrics to the song "Princesa," which recently appeared nationally on Putumayo's Radio Latino compilation. She comes from a family of well-known Venezuelan musicians and artists who call her daily to spread love and blessings. She has a retro-chic downtown apartment complete with a sleek recording studio, a doting terrier named Nacho, and a philosophical, dread-headed sound-engineer boyfriend with job security — in part thanks to his producing her. And to top it all off, she's gorgeous.
Just when you think you're going to gag, she takes the green away with her down-home South American charm, calling you "my sky" as she hands you a cup of organic joe. Next thing you know, you're hanging on her every happy deep thought and the way she tears up talking about how her lawyer mother has learned to understand and manage a house full of creative types. Among them is Sacha's father, legendary composer Enrique Hidalgo.
Sacha hopes this artistic legacy will pay off on the release of her second album, Montada en los Tacones (Mounted on High Heels). Given the decline of the record industry, and the economy in general, she's going a very 2008 route, launching her new songs into cyberspace one at a time. The first, "Ay Papito," reaches orbit this week at www.sachanairobi.com. The development and order of the releases will depend on how each song sells.
"It's to see whether the public likes what I'm doing," Sacha says. "A lot of artists make two or three really great songs for an album, and the rest just fill up space."
Her marketing plan makes sense in an era of single-song downloads from the web, the main source from which listeners obtained the 10 tracks off her self-titled 2005 album. She says the strategy levels the playing field for independent artists, but also holds them accountable for providing fans with consistently good music.
"The Internet makes competition more fair because people have the freedom to tune in or out, something you can't do under the radio payola system," she explains. "It also takes you back to the days of word of mouth, where friends tell other friends, and where you have to fight to be heard. That forces you to be a better musician."
In fact, Sacha says, a healthy sense of musical accountability is what brought her this far. She and her family came to South Florida from Venezuela eight years ago on artist visas her brother Jesus Hidalgo secured through Miami's Fabrika Records. When Sacha first arrived, she recorded back-up vocals for popular Spanish singers Paloma San Basilio and the late Rocio Durcal and then began composing songs for Universal Publishing. In 2002, her brothers got her recording with Colombian-born producer German Ortiz, and the creative magnetism between the two was so strong it grew into what is now a six-year romance.
None of this would have come to fruition if not for a childhood in a Maracaibo home reminiscent of an arts-oriented reality show. One brother painted, another took photographs, others composed songs. Sacha acted, and whether she liked it or not at the time, she was expected to sing.
"Coming to my house was like showing up at a workshop," she says, giggling. "I couldn't even get a bite of food in my mouth without my parents telling me to belt out a number." But the experience forced her to recognize her God-given talents and thicken her skin for an often-cruel industry.
"My toughest judges are members of my own family. Even now I can't take a song out of that house unless it's gotten high marks," she says. But the judging comes alongside typically Venezuelan displays of affection. Not a day goes by that her parents and five brothers don't call to give a blessing or tell her they love her. "Growing up under this kind of magical critique is the very thing that helps to open the heart and the senses," she adds.
Sacha also attributes her strong artistic work ethic to her "crazy, divine artist father," Enrique Hidalgo. His habit of writing a song a day paid off years ago with international hits such as the folk-salsa classic "La Carta," interpreted by Venezuelan salsa legend Oscar d'Leon, and "El Ladrón de Tu Amor," a ballad that became the theme song for the Venezuelan soap opera Leonela. More than two decades later, those tunes are still winning him fat royalty checks.
Meanwhile, brothers Jesus and Jannio showed Sacha how to strut her stuff onstage back in Venezuela with their nationally acclaimed group Urbanda. And here in Miami, their band, Los Hidalgo, has been working the Latin club circuit for years.
Jesus, whose solo album Volao is topping salsa-pop charts in Colombia and Venezuela, is full of accolades for his kid sister. "She's capable of combining intelligence, sensuality, and humor. There aren't many artists who have that kind of sensibility," he says.
It seems inevitable then that Sacha would become a professional artist. However, in an effort to find her own voice, she has chosen to forge what she calls a "free" style of progressive pop. It combines Latin roots with the kinds of alternative rock and folk of interest to world-beat-loving gringos perusing the Whole Foods music section. Much like Sacha's mother country, her music is developed yet organic.
"We're a very musical people — that's what makes us so joyful," she chirps. "We're also very traditional, and there's a lot of traditions I don't think we should lose — like how just about everyone plays the cuatro."
This curious four-stringed guitar is heard throughout Sacha's music. "I let loose on the cuatro like it was an electric guitar," she says. Such enthusiasm is easily noted on previous hits such as "Princesa," where a few twangy notes of the cuatro lead into a sassy, horn-infused funk about giving up glamour for true love. At first listen, her poppier numbers lean a little toward Paulina Rubio, but some jangling Dixieland and ragtime, combined with sprinklings of reggae and street sounds, give them a bohemian edge.
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"I welcome all musical trends. I like everything from a ballad to a rhythmic danceable song," she says. "I'm trying to define it as a kind of 'ethnopop,' because it has instruments from all over the world mixed with drums, electric bass, and progressive pop."
This week's "Ay Papito" is all of that and more. Sung and performed in Afro-Venezuelan dialogue and rhythm, it pays homage to Sacha's father and to the continent from which he took much of his inspiration (including Sacha's middle name, the second part of her stage moniker).
It might be up to the audience to influence the rest of the album. To live off of what you love, you have to make it marketable, so in essence, Sacha's gradual Internet release strategy turns listeners into collaborators in the creative process. If she knows what they want to download, she'll upload tracks with a similar gusto, provided it's still in the vein of her own gusto.
"I'm studying the market. I don't have to change my style, but I might have to evolve," she says. "I'm at peace with myself because I learned to compete in this artistic environment without betraying my roots or my feelings. I don't have to be famous; I just have to be an artist."